Why People Rebel by Bil Bussey, Provost
Recently, I was fortunate enough to have a front row seat for a Malcolm Gladwell lecture about "a forgotten hero and an unlikely…radical” of the suffragette movement, Alva (Vanderbilt) Belmont. Gladwell soon revealed his main thesis: “Why do people of apparent weakness choose to rebel?” In his examination, Gladwell cited NYU psychologist Tom Tyler’s Why People Obey the Law. Tyler observes, “If a country or person in a position of authority wants to get people to obey authority, it punishes them for disobedience and rewards them for obedience. Deterrence assumes that we are rational actors. Is the gain that one achieves by disobedience greater than the cost of obedience? If we think the cost is too great, then we do not disobey. Our criminal justice system is completely built around deterrence.” Gladwell was quick to agree with a recent study by a group of psychologists that “this theory really doesn’t work.”
Gladwell could just as easily been giving tips on how to be a more effective parent or an educational institution, for that matter. Hear this, from Gladwell:
“People comply with authority not because they make rational calculations between risks and benefits but they do so on the basis of their belief that justice is being rendered in a legitimate manner.”
In other words, threatening kids with a list of all the penalties that will fall on them may work early on, but ultimately that approach becomes ineffective. Tyler’s main point is that “people will go along with laws [in the case of our children, rules and restrictions] that are profoundly not in their self-interest if they perceive the laws to be legitimate.”
Simply put: “Legitimacy is the real engine of compliance.”
So here’s the million dollar question: What set of principles gives us parents (and school administrators) the best shot at having our children follow our guidelines, particularly when no one is watching?
Gladwell cites Tyler’s three basic principles for procedural justice.
“We consider authority legitimate…
1. …when it grants us standing, when it listens to us, and when we have a chance to be heard, to voice our opinions.”
2. …when the administration of law [rules, restrictions, and punishments] is neutral; when it doesn’t treat one group radically different from or better than another.”
3. …when the way ‘the law’ works today is the way that ‘the law’ works tomorrow.”
Keeping these three basic principles front and center can yield huge dividends when it comes to guiding children. Reading those principles and maintaining them are two different things. My checklist whirls. Are we listening to what our children have to say? Would our children agree with us on that one? Do we unintentionally favor one child (or one group) over another—or is there a perception, rarely stated, among our children that we do? Do we mean what we say? Do our children have confidence in our abilities to get things right, to see their world, to get the big picture? Do they trust our judgment? Are we consistent in our approach and do we actually follow through even when doing so is a hassle of unfathomable proportions?
Let’s face it: nobody bats a thousand. Yet, even the most skeptical of us can agree that when we feel that we are “being heard, and believe that the administration of that onerous ‘thing’ is being neutral, and that there is trustworthiness in the system,” a genuine level of trust and loyalty—that trumps even our self-interests—will follow.